Former health minister Lord Warner has called for the government to set up an independent inquiry into the law on assisted suicide legislation, to clear up current “confusion”.
Warner’s call, in a House of Lords debate yesterday, follows a high-profile speech by author Terry Pratchett this week in which he advocated the introduction of tribunals to sanction assisted suicide for terminally ill people.
Warner, who described Pratchett’s speech as courageous, said: “Year-on-year, we see a steady flow of mercy killing cases appear in our courts. Some of them look similar in circumstance but end up with different outcomes in decisions to prosecute or in court outcomes
The director of public prosecutions recently consulted on an interim policy spelling out when factors which should determine prosecutions, though Warner said these had been called into question by the case of Kay Gilderdale.
She was cleared last week of the attempted murder of her daughter, but the judge criticised the Crown Prosecution Service for bringing the prosecution.
Though Warner said he did not expect the government to bring forward legislation on the issue, he added: “I expect the government to recognise that we now have a confused legal situation around death and dying that is very threatening to a growing number of people. They have a responsibility to try to facilitate some resolution of the confusion.”
However, a number of peers rejected Warner’s call, including leading disability campaigner Baroness Campbell, and Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former head of the family courts.
Justice minister Lord Bach, who was present at the debate, said the government’s position on a change in the law had been made clear. He said: “We take a neutral view when others seek to change the law. To be clear: this means neither standing in the way of such a change nor actively pursuing it.”
Lord Bach noted the work of a select committee considering a bill on assisted suicide in 2004 saying it had failed to come to a conclusion. “The danger, although I am not saying that it is inevitable, is that we could embark on a time-consuming and potentially very expensive exercise that might not take us very much, or any, further forward,” he said.